Sarah Thomas ready for NFL's call

Sarah Thomas on officiating: 'I do this because I love it.' Jane McManus for ESPN

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Sarah Thomas is standing in front of about 50 girls on a brisk and sunless spring day. She asks the group if they like officials, and many shout a lighthearted, "No!"

By the end of the day, a few may change their minds. The girls, ages 12 to 17, love to play football; but after a series of drills and a discussion, a few of them start to imagine themselves in a different football uniform, one with black-and-white stripes.

"I didn't think it was an option," said Edina Music, a freshman from Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

But it is. Late last month, the NFL partnered with the New York Sharks of the Women's Football Alliance to launch its first clinic for young athletes through the new Women Officiating Now program, or WON. The WON clinic was part of the Sharks' annual minicamp for girls.

"I think it's just the natural next progression," said Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating. "We're looking for untapped talent."

Which makes Thomas the most potent recruiting tool the NFL has to offer. Thomas, who will work for Conference USA again this season, has been in the NFL officiating pipeline for years. Many thought she would be the first woman to officiate an NFL game, but that milestone was set by Shannon Eastin, who stepped in as a replacement when the officials' union was locked out before the 2012 season (her tenure ended when the NFL settled with the union).

"The thing is, I've never set out to be the first and that hasn't changed," Thomas said. "I do this because I love it."

Her message to the girls: Persevere. It's something she knows more than a little about.

Last season, Thomas moved into an off-the-field role for her Division I league when she became pregnant early in the spring with her third child. "Surprise!" Thomas said with a laugh. Last December, her daughter joined a family that included her two sons, ages 9 and 12. She walked into a meeting for prospective football officials 17 years ago and met some skeptical stares; now, Thomas is again working her way back in.

Blandino said no developing official would be brought right into the NFL after a year off the field, but added that Thomas' inclusion in the NFL ranks is "only a matter of time."

What a message for the young athletes assembled, whose only interaction with officiating may have been on the receiving end of calls.

"It's so great to have the NFL involved," Sharks owner Andra Douglas said.

Douglas has seen things come full circle. She was the team's quarterback in the 1990s and her teammates were looking just to be accepted for playing a traditional men's game. Now, the NFL is actively looking to include women at the officiating level. Linebackers may need to be a certain size and shape, but the skills that officiating requires have little to do with physical stature.

It's something Thomas proves by standing up to address the young players. With the stature of a volleyball player and a measured temperament, Thomas has the bearing of a successful official even with her blond ponytail. In a year or two, she could be the first full-time official in the NFL.

"Wherever they'll send me, I'll go," Thomas said.

And given the NFL's committed outreach, Thomas won't be an anomaly for long.